By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
RAVENA-COEYMANS-SELKIRK — The school district is presently in a holding pattern over the future of the “Indians” team name and mascot and is awaiting additional guidance from the state.
District Superintendent Dr. Brian Bailey told the board of education at its Dec. 14 meeting that districts have been promised more information and answers to “frequently asked questions” over the requirement to change team names, mascots and imagery that reference indigenous people.
“We’ve been promised additional guidance from the State Education Department,” Bailey told the board.
The Education Department handed down a decision in mid-November that required schools to do away with such imagery or risk losing all state aid, among other consequences.
“We need to know to what extent districts are mandated to do this,” Bailey said. “We’ve seen the ultimatum that was in the initial release, which was the potential loss of state aid, which for us is $26 million a year, half of our budget, and the removal of all district leaders for failing to follow the directive.”
The state has not issued specific guidance for making the switch, but according to a Nov. 17 memo from the Education Department, the changes must be made “by the end of the 2022-23 school year” or be in “willful violation of the Dignity Act.”
In early December the state’s Board of Regents released for public comment what the new regulation would look like in the law, but districts are awaiting additional information. Bailey said he has been contacted by people in the RCS community about the new rule and what will happen locally.
“I’ve already received communication from members of the community and graduates and [students] currently enrolled,” Bailey said. “There are thousands of things that districts are required to do that are contingent on us receiving our state aid. There are consequences for not doing those things — to state and federal aid — so I think to watch how the regulations develop is the relevant thing and then once we have good guidance, we’ll have a conversation as a community and decide what we’re going to do next.”
There will be student input into the process once the district decides how it will move forward, he added.
“We will have students unquestionably involved in that,” the superintendent said. “That’s one of the things that the Student Advisory Council, if I had allowed them to talk about it [in our meeting], we would have spent the whole 80 minutes about the mascot issue because it’s one that is very important to the students in the school. I expect that by January we will have more information.”
Board of education member Jennifer Molino asked how many districts in the state will be affected by the requirement.
There are 60 districts statewide that will be required to make the change under the current mandate, Bailey said.
Board member Michael Deyo said guidance on the financial impact on districts will be important. The change would mean that imagery, the mascot and name would have to be changed on uniforms, at fields, and elsewhere on the campus.
“If you walk around the campus and look at some of the investments that we have in the imagery and the mascots and everything that would need to be redone, if it needs to be redone it would be substantial,” Deyo said.
A similar prohibition was passed by the State Education Department back in 2001 that schools do away with Native American names and iconography, but many schools did not make the switch.
“SED has consistently opposed the use of Native American mascots,” Senior Deputy Commissioner James Baldwin from the State Education Department wrote in a memo to schools around the state Nov. 17.
The tipping point, Bailey contended, was the recent legal challenge in the Cambridge school district, where the school was forced to change its team name — the Indians, which included an image of a profile of a stereotypical Native American man, similar to the one used by the RCS Indians.
That court case was followed by the statewide mandate a couple of weeks ago.
A neighboring school district — Coxsackie-Athens — in 2021 retired its name and imagery, also the “Indians,” after a protracted and heated controversy in the community. The C-A mascot was dropped and the team was renamed the Riverhawks after a survey was conducted in the community to come up with a new name.
At RCS, the district will wait for more comprehensive guidance from the state before making any decisions or changes, Bailey said, “to give us a framework by which we can work. It would be helpful.”
If and when a community conversation takes place, there will be advocates on both sides of the issue, Bailey predicted.
“We know people want to support both sides of the argument and I think we need the guard rails to know so we have a good path to follow in making decisions over what comes next,” Bailey said.